8. Sikh Bhakti & Society | Sikhi
8. Sikh Bhakti & Society
We have already come to the conclusion that in Sikhism moral activity is the chief method of spiritual growth.
This raises 2 issues. The first concerns the approach of the Gurmukh towards social institutions and making changes in them.
The Gurus, and more especially Guru Nānak, have been sharply critical of the evil socio-political institutions and customs of the times.
About prejudices regarding caste and against women (which had received almost religious sanction), the Gurus say:
"The Vedas make a wrong distinction of caste, colour, heaven and hell."
"No one should take pride in caste; foolish man be not proud of caste; this pride leads to innumerable evils. They make distinctions of four castes, but all are born of God."
"The whole world is made of the same elements. Then why make distinctions?''
"They talk of pollution and warn others not to touch their food, lest it should be defiled.
But their own bodies are impure."
"Why call women impure when without woman there would be none."
Evil social practices and customs have been denounced:
God consciousness consists in treating all as equals.
The idleness of yogīs and ascetics, hypocrisy of priests and Brahmins, and inequalities in the economic field and the amassing of wealth have been condemned.
"God's riches are for all men but men try to grab them for themselves."
"God's bounty belongs to all, but in the world it is mal-distributed."
"Man gathers riches by making others miserable."
"Riches cannot be gathered without sin and these do not keep company after death.''
"O Yogi, are you not ashamed of begging from door to door for your food?''
"The man incapable of earning a living, gets his ears split (to become a Yogi) or becomes a mendicant. He calls himself a Guru or saint but begs for food from door to door. Never look up to such a person or touch his feet.
He knows the right way who makes his living by hard work
and shares his earning with others.''
Similarly, in the political field, the oppression of the rulers, the tyranny of the invaders, and the corruption of the officials have been deprecated.
The two important things should be understood in regard to this criticism:
This criticism is the direct consequence of Guru's ideas about God and the reality of the world:
Their world- view is clearly of life affirmation.
The brotherhood of man is the basis of their socio-spiritual approach.
Hence their attack on all kinds of socio-political evils and inequalities, on downgrading the socio-religious status of women, and on idleness, renunciation and withdrawal from the world.
Secondly, this condemnation was not a mere verbal exercise. But, it was an essential step to educate the people, change their ideas and build up fresh motivations.
For, an important function of religion is to create and "establish powerful, pervasive and long- lasting moods and motivations in men."
Further change in social institutions could never have been brought about unless this calculated change in the moods and the minds of people had been brought about before that.
The second issue concerns the remoulding of social institutions and organisations, and the means to be adopted for the desired purposes:
The Gurus describe God not only as the Helper of the weak, the shelterless and the supportless, but also the Destroyer of the oppressor.
The 6th Guru clearly stated that his sword was both for the help of the oppressed and the destruction of the tyrants. It evidently implies that the Gurus contemplate reconstruction and creation of alternative moral institutions.
Naturally, alternative human institutions can come up only by the substitution, remoulding or destruction of the old and unwanted organisations.
The lives of the Gurus are a clear pointer that, in their system, change of environment to improve the moral climate in all fields is clearly envisaged and sanctioned.
In any system where moral life has an independent validity and an importance of its own as a desirable end, the making of environmental and organisational changes for that purpose would be justified.
The Gurus accordingly envisage a change in environment and the remoulding of social organisations.
An allied important issue is the means to be adopted for bringing about the desired institutional and other changes.
In God's world all forms and progress are the product of force;
since no change is possible without the use of force.
Again, as all encroachment on the rights of others involves aggression, the same cannot be undone except by the use of an equal and opposite use of force.
In fact, all action and activity, howsoever good, involve the use of force, because action and force are synonymous.
Action not involving the use of force is a contradiction in terms.
Therefore, except by some miracle it is impossible to bring about a change in the social or institutional environment without the use of requisite force.
It is significant to note that in the entire Guru Granth there is no miracle attributed to Guru. In the Gurus' system, only the miracles of deeds are performed.
Logically, it is impossible to construct anything without destroying or remoulding the existing structure. Of course, the force used should not seek to serve any selfish or egoistic purpose.
In the background of the Indian tradition this issue about the use of force as the means for a moral end needs some clarification, since a lot of confusion among some scholars has arisen on this score.
The alternative to the use of force or killing and meat-eating is the doctrine of Ahimsa. Ahimsa has been advocated by most Indian religions, as was also done by Bhagat Kabīr.
But, it is of significant importance that it is Guru Nānak who opposed this doctrine:
"Men discriminate not and quarrel over meat-eating. They know not what is flesh and what is non- flesh, and in what lies or does not lie a sin."
In his hymns, the Guru details his views concerning the issue of means and about meat-eating:
He chides the Brahmins for their pretence about meat-eating. He describes how the ways and processes of life involve the transformation and the use of the flesh.
He also explains that life is present in every grain of our food and even in the fire-wood and the cow-dung which the Brahmins use for the purposes of purification.
The Guru exposes the fallacy that life, much less a moral deed, is possible without the use of force.
He means that immorality does not lie in the use of force, which is inevitable for all living, whether moral or immoral, but it lies in the direction or the purpose for which force is used.
The significance and thrust of these hymns have often been missed.
Evidently, from the very start Guru Nānak contemplated a change in the socio-moral atmosphere and institutions. The doctrine of Ahimsa was serious hurdle in disturbing or demolishing the status quo.
Therefore, as a prophet of a new religion, he once for all made it plain that, so long as one worked in the midst of social life, all arbitrary prejudices against meat-eating or the use of force as such were wrong and meaningless.
It is very significant to note that the religious systems that insisted on Ahimsa were either ascetic or monastic, or suggested withdrawal from the world.
The Radical Bhagats were neither monastic nor ascetic, but they never considered social involvement to be a duty or a field of spiritual training and growth.
Kabīr deems the world to be a trap from which deliverance has to be sought. His attitude towards women is exactly like that of monastic or ascetic religions.
While referring to the Bhakti cults of India, Ray says that these had completely surrendered to the status quo and the socio-political establishment of the day.
All we wish to emphasize is that no religious system that suggests the love of man as an essential part of the love of God can accept or suggest the limitation of Ahimsa for work in the moral or the social field.
Ahimsa is inevitably linked with religious systems that have a world-view of life negation and are unconcerned with socio-political changes. It is, in fact, an ascetic tool, being the product or a part of an ascetic or monastic methodology.
It may be argued that great pacifists like Mahatma Gandhi successfully employed non-violence as the means of bringing about socio-political changes. But, it is now well known that when the Mahatma had to face a major challenge of his life, he found himself helpless.
The Mahatma being the greatest exponent of non-violence in modern times, when the Second World War broke out, the pacifists of the world looked up to him for a lead.
But the Mahatma could furnish or suggest no non-violent or effective remedy. Ahimsa could be of little help to him in stopping the holocaust.
The situation became so frustrating for the Mahatma that he even thought of committing suicide so that if he could do nothing to stop the destruction, he would at least not live to see the misery caused by it.
The two occasions when he had to discard Ahimsa as a tool are quite well known, namely, when he agreed to the Congress accepting the responsibility of the war effort, and, again, when in 1947, he had no objection to the entry of Indian forces in Kashmir for its defence.
Another great pacifist too had to take a contrasted stand when faced with a crucial issue:
During the First World War Bertrand Russel opposed the idea of war and violence to the point of being arrested in pursuance of his pacifist beliefs.
But, later, after the Second World War, Russel himself suggested an attack against Soviet Russia before it became a major Atomic Power and a threat or menace to the entire world.
The issue needs some further clarifications:
Reasons and force are two tools available to man for work and progress in the socio-political sphere. Without the use of both these means, it is impossible to bring about any social change.
In fact a high sense of reason or discrimination is the chief faculty that distinguishes man from other animals. We have seen that the Gurus clearly indicate reason to be a good instrument of religious progress.
"By the use of discrimination of intellect one serves God. By discrimination one is honoured. By intellect and study one understands things."
"It is the sense of discrimination that makes one charitable.
This is the right way, rest is all wrong."
"Man is blessed with the light of reason and discrimination."
"One in fear of God and discriminating between good and bad, appears sweet to God."
Yet in the history of civilisation human reason or intellect has also been used as the greatest instrument of oppression and destruction.
Human rationality has been called a convenient and clever cloak to cover man's bestiality. Does it imply that we should altogether discard reason as a useful tool for religious progress.
We have already noted what is the answer given by the Gurus on this point.
The fact is that both reason and force are neutral tools that can be used both for good and evil, for construction and destruction.
The Gurus unambiguously accept the use of both of them as the means of religious functioning and progress. In doing so, they made major departure from the earlier Bhakti and religious traditions.
But, this break with the past was the direct result of their new religious methodology and goals and consequent social involvement and objectives.
All consciousness or life is nothing but a centre of perfection, deliberation, activity and organisation. The Gurus accepted life, the world and its responsibilities in toto:
"Despise not the world for it is the creation of God," says the Guru.
As the instruments or the servants of God, they had to carry out God's Will in helping the weak and destroying the oppressor.
Their spiritual system, therefore, involved the use of all the available tools, including reason and force, for the purposeful progress of man and his organising consciousness.
According to the Guru, the malady is not the use of reason and force, which can both be used and abused, but the egoistic consciousness of man,
which is narrow and inadequate in its perception and partial in its outlook and functioning, because it stands alienated from the Basic Reality.
Therefore, the way out is the development of a higher consciousness in order to become a whole man or superman with a sense of kinship and total responsibility towards all beings.
The higher the consciousness, the truer its perception and the greater its capacity for organisation and functioning in order to execute God's mission.
Man's greatest problems today are poverty, disease and wars. Undoubtedly, these need the greatest organisational effort in the socio-political field.
The diagnosis of the Gurus is that the egoistic man has neither the perception, nor the vision nor even the organisational, moral and spiritual capacity to solve the problems of man.
It is only the religious man with a higher consciousness, who alone can fulfil God's mission of creating the Kingdom of God on earth.
The Guru indicates the path of progress or evolution: "God created first himself, then Haumain, third Maya and fourth state of poise and bliss."
At the second and third stages, man's development is only partial.
The aim is the achievement of the fourth stage.
In Sikhism, the development of union with God is not an end in itself:
The goal is the development of a higher consciousness, so as to discharge the total responsibilities devolving on man in order to create a world of harmony and happiness.
The Gurus say that human problems cannot be solved at the third stage of man's development. These can be dealt with adequately only at the fourth stage.
And, this development of a higher consciousness is for a religious purpose.
That purpose or mission is epitomised in the lives of Gurus.
Guru Hargobind in his talk with saint Rāmdās made it clear that what Guru Nānak had given up was mammon and not the world, the enrichment of which, in accordance with the attributive Will of God, was the mission of the Gurus, as also of every God-conscious man.
In such a righteous world alone the problems of poverty, misery, disease, war and conflict can be solved. The development of superman is, therefore, the spiritual purpose, for which life has been striving.